By Michael Mendis
Why do gamers love to play games? What draws them to a game, to the experience that game provides? These are vital questions when it comes to understanding gamers and building relationships with them, and as Christians, people who are seeking to share Christ’s love with those around them, they are questions that we must take some time to answer if we ever hope to be an effective witness. There are a wide variety of reasons why people are attracted to playing games, and for any one gamer there are likely multiple motivations at work, depending on the person as well as the game they are playing at that moment. This three-part series will attempt to take a close look at just a few of these motivations, and today I’d like to focus on one that I myself am well acquainted with: escapism.
Many gamers enjoy being enveloped in fascinating fictional worlds, and in doing so allowing their minds a respite from their regular lives. This is especially true of gamers like me who love to play single-player games, and get immersed in a finely crafted universe that is rife with fascinating characters and filled with places to explore. There are plenty of positive things about this approach to gaming, and also some pitfalls to be aware of. Let’s start with the positives.
One of the gifts that God gives to people is a creative mind. The author of creation has taken his desire to create and passed it along to us, his image bearers, so that we will take the raw material that is given to us and make something new. People come up with incredibly imaginative fictional characters and worlds, and when we as an audience take these in, it spurs our own imagination. Creativity feeds off of other creativity, as the young generation is inspired by those that came before. It’s a part of how we fulfill God’s mandate to us to subdue the earth, cultivating it and helping it reach its full potential.
Fiction can also approach difficult social/cultural/moral problems by working them into their own unique narrative, which allows the audience to examine these issues from a more detached perspective, somewhat outside of their own personal experience. Interacting with engaging, well-written characters dealing with their own challenges can shine new light on experiences we have with those around us.
On top of that, we all need a break from the daily grind from time to time, and getting lost in a well-crafted game world can be a wonderful way to do that. The game transports you away from the problems you are facing and lets you relax in an environment where things are much more ordered and under control than they normally are in the rest of life. Progress is more easily defined (quests completed, characters upgraded, etc.), and victory is within our grasp. When life is a slog with no end in sight, it can be a real encouragement to experience some success within a game world. Saving the maiden from the dragon, defeating the invading forces threatening the galaxy, or otherwise seeing the forces of good triumph over evil in a fictional world brings us a sense of satisfaction, and is a reflection (pale and fleeting as it may be) of what our hearts truly long to see: the full and final triumph of Christ over the curse of sin that besets our world and ourselves.
We don’t even need to look to gaming to see all of these positive things in action. Rich fictional worlds have been a part of human culture for centuries; just look at the influence and impact of stories like King Arthur, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia. We attach ourselves to characters like Lancelot, Frodo, or the Pevensie siblings, living vicariously in this fictional world through them and sharing in their victories and defeats. We see the trials they go through, and contemplate how our own are similar or different. Games are following in the footsteps of their literary forefathers, using new technology to regale us with fantastical tales and immerse us in unexplored lands.
As with all the good things in this world that God gives to us, though, there is always the opportunity for us to misuse it and idolize it, putting it above our relationship with our Creator. Escapism is no different; we often find ourselves tempted to get sucked into a world or a story to the point that we don’t want to leave. After all, it’s so much easier to just ignore the problems in our lives and try to bury ourselves in something else than to actually deal with them. Suddenly, the thing that was supposed to be a benefit to our lives starts to become a detriment. When we over-absorb ourselves in a game world, it depletes us rather than refreshing us. When the controller gets put down, the rest of the world feels dull and empty; our meaning, in our minds, now resides within the game and what we do in it, rather than in God and the entirety of the life he has graciously given us. We become blinded to the world around us, rather than having our eyes opened in new and exciting ways.
Spending too much time absorbed in gaming leads us to neglect the tasks and relationships that we need to take care of; our minds become so consumed by entertainment that there isn’t enough space left for the people around us, and our friends and family suffer from the emotional distance it creates. We may still be eager to share our gaming experiences with our loved ones (which is a good thing, in general), but we are nonetheless left unable to sit back and listen to the things that our loved ones share with us, and the relationship becomes one-sided. When used in proper moderation, escapism can enrich those around us, but when it gets out of control, it drains those that God has put into our lives.
So for people like me who love to sink their teeth into a deep and engaging gaming experience, we have to make sure that we keep escapism in its proper place. If we let it take too much of a hold on our lives, we put ourselves in danger of being unable to tear ourselves away from it. But if we subjugate our entertainment to God and keep his will as our ultimate priority, we can benefit from the creativity of others and allow it to refresh and enlighten us. Our understanding of the world, our fellow man, and the one who created us becomes richer as we explore the fictional worlds that people create, stretching our imagination and causing us to think not only of what can be achieved today, but also what we might be able to achieve tomorrow.